Can Vancouver become ‘the best place on Earth’?

earth_nightIs Vancouver truly the ‘best place on Earth’ to live? No it isn’t. But it has the potential.

By Liam Lahey, re:place Magazine

It’s heralded as such far and wide: “Vancouver – the best place on Earth” to live. It’s too bad the city doesn’t quite live up to the billing.

Vancouver certainly has the potential to be the best place on Earth to live and work (or at least in North America). At present though, it’s simply a beautiful but challenging environment to thrive in.

Some might say Vancouver requires an actual civic identity, such as those projected by the likes of New York, Paris and (*gasp*) Toronto. Others may suggest it’s time to recognize that almost everything that’s transpiring in Vancouver today has a direct correlation to past events.

“Vancouver’s freedom from history and its lack of a set identity is fictitious or at least greatly exaggerated,” remarked Charlie Demers.

Demers is an activist, comedian, a performer on CBC Radio One and a co-host of CityTV’s The Citynews List in Vancouver. His recently published book, Vancouver Special, is a look at this city’s past, present, and future in words and photographs.

Speaking as part of the inaugural Simon Fraser University‘s year-long lecture series aimed at exploring aspects of the city’s past – in concert with Vancouver’s 125th anniversary this year – Demers was joined by SFU urban studies Professor Matt Hern. Hern also has a recently published book about Vancouver called Common Ground in a Liquid City (10 essays looking closely at the city and urbanism in general).

Both men spoke to the SFU’s near full Morris J. Wosk Centre on Jan. 27th, with speeches that promised to engage the public in “an honest narrative about Vancouver and its’ future”. Both speeches were riveting, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

“I have a Google alert on the phrase ‘Vancouver Special’ . . . 90 per cent of what I get are real estate ads,” Demers admitted. “Some of these Vancouver Specials (homes of a particular architectural style, 1965-1985) have been turned into these yuppie pleasure palaces . . . it’s kind of sad but it’s a perfect metaphor for what’s happening to the city at large. That involves a drastic alienation or estrangement from this city’s history.”

The claims that Vancouver is unburdened by history as well as lacking a defined civic identity are related.

“You could say that civic identity is another means of saying that in assessing a city’s present, it’s history matters as much as its’ geography,” he said. “Cities that know who they are generally are cities where history is at everybody’s fingertips.”

He argued that while Vancouver’s supposed unidentifiable newness is passed off as a form of liberty, it’s not always done in good faith. “‘The freedom to be whatever city we want to be’ in real terms almost always means the freedom to displace people, build skyscrapers, and develop a resort town.”

Citing significant moments in the region’s history, he drew direct links from past to present day. For instance, he noted the intersection of Main and Carroll Streets in Vancouver’s downtown eastside has been the Canadian epicentre of the illicit drug trade since the late 1800s.

“That neighbourhood has never not been a vice district,” he said. “This has always been a working-class area where people could come to blow off steam, get drunk, buy sex, do drugs; that has always been in the DNA of this neighbourhood.”

Ergo that which plagues the city’s downtown eastside isn’t new, it’s merely been transformed by the changes in social housing and changes that have occurred in policing.

“The open-air drug trade was created by policy,” he said. “Whatever you think of that or the results, what’s not happening, is something that’s brand new.”

Similarly, Vancouver’s always been an anti-war city and an ecologically-minded city in a paradoxical way, Demers said. It’s always been artistically peripheral, and it’s always been cursed with a structural and policed racism toward Natives and a general cultural racism directed at east and south Asians.

Hern, meanwhile, started out by suggesting the world has become an urban place and as a result, now is the best chance for the human race to save the environment. But that also puts pressure on cities to seriously contemplate how best to build liveable, enduring, green-minded public space.

“By all indications, our global future is an urban future,” he said. “This relentless, incredible urbanization of the globe is a good thing . . . I’ve come to believe it may actually be our only shot at an ecological future.”

Look at Manhattan Island for instance. “If Manhattan was to be measured by energy use per capita, if it was a state, it would be ranked 51st.”

But in thinking about density, Hern warned we must think about it thoughtfully, in terms of equity, and densifying [sic] in a way that increases social equality.

“That’s what’s at stake: learning how to share space with people who are not like us. I don’t just mean learning to handle that or finding the liberal platitudes to get us through the day, but really learning how to embrace it and to embrace it on very fundamental differences.”

Vive la différence!

“What creates urban vitality is that difference,” he said. “The movement beyond tolerance towards hospitality is fundamental if we’re going to share space.”

In Vancouver, there’s a particular phenomenon; an obsessive-compulsive twitch when it comes to regulating public space.

“We seem to think we can choreograph the way public space operates. I think that’s a fantasy,” he said. “In all honesty, it’s pure arrogance to think that we can ‘master plan’ a great city.”

Hern put the onus for creating this great city squarely on the population. He also emphasized the need for citizens to become involved politically in their own neighbourhoods. But like so many other things in Vancouver, that too comes down to affordability.

“In a simple way, you’re not going to have a city of people participating in public life and dialogue when they’re so busy because they have to hustle every single day just to pay the rent.”

Noting recent news articles declaring Vancouver the third least affordable city on the planet for housing, Hern also cited research from KPMG in 2010 which stated Vancouver has Canada’s lowest corporate tax rate and it’s also first worldwide in terms of corporate tax competitiveness among cities.

“We need to think outside of market ideology and create non-market spaces,” he said. “In a lot ways, Vancouver gets lots of things right, but we can do better. We can create a city that doesn’t price its best citizens out of its core; a city that doesn’t require us to hustle to make rent.”

And as if by poetic justice, just a few blocks away from SFU’s downtown digs on West Hastings Street, the whitish glow of Beat Street Records’ overhead sign beams, “all that was will have always been, somehow never again”.

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— follow Liam Lahey on Twitter: @Lahey13